Carol Flint has had a long and distinguished career writing for television. But it's for one particular episode that she's probably best know. That's her writing the live, season-premiere episode of ER. It was the first primetime network series to broadcast live in many decades. As such, it provided a great many challenges, not just from the acting and directing standpoint, but from the writing, as well, needing to make sure all the puzzle-pieces fit. Because of this, I went a bit more off-plan that usual and asked here quite a few question about that now-famous production.
Edited by Robert J. Elisberg
An Emmy Award winner and multiple Emmy Award nominee as both a writer and producer, ER executive producer Carol Flint has written numerous episodes of the series, including "Ambush," the famous, live season-premiere episode for the show's fourth year. She has been with ER since its second season.
Previously, Flint co-created and was one of the executive producers of the series Earth 2. Before that, she was a writer and supervising producer for Crime and Punishment and L.A. Law. She began her television career as a staff writer on the first season of China Beach, and continued to write and produce for four seasons of acclaimed series (later reuniting on ER with many of her friends and collaborators from the China Beach creative team).
More recently, she was supervising producer and wrote for The West Wing. She also was executive producer of The Unit, and consulting producer – and then later, co-executive producer of Royal Pains. She also served as executive producer on the series, Six Degrees.
A playwright with many regional productions and national awards, Flint has twice shared nominations for the Writers Guild of America Award for Episodic Drama. She has been a nominee and recipient of the Humanitas Award, and has received both a GLAAD Award and a Media Access Award. Born and raised in West Carrollton, Ohio, Flint attended City College in New York, holds an undergraduate degree from New College in Florida, and an MFA in Playwriting from UC Davis where she was a Regents and Chandler Fellow.
>> Were there any movies, TV shows or books that first got you interested in writing?
CF: Actually, the first book that got me interested in writing was the first book I read: Ted and Sally. It was the reading primer used in the mid-fifties in Ohio where I grew up. My older sister brought it home from first grade; I discovered I could read "Jump, sally! Jump, Boots" just as well as she could. As soon as I finished reading it, I got some paper, figured out how to fold it to make a book, and wrote my own, first-of-many emulations. At the time, I was already a veteran of several years of front porch and living room dramas with my sister and an older cousin -- so the two interests were with me from the start.
>> How do you work?
CF: I prefer to work in big chunks of time, starting early in the morning and stopping when it gets dark. But because I've been in episodic drama for the last ten years, I only get those stretches of time on weekends. And since I have a son, who is now fifteen, I learned to adapt when he was young to working whenever and however I could, in order to meet deadlines. I always prefer silence -- when I can get it. Hotel rooms appeal to me. And I have an unrealized fantasy of taking my laptop on a cross-country train trip.
I am not a procrastinator at all-which probably means I'm afraid I'm the worst kind. I anticipate all deadlines; and get a terrible stomachache imagining the way some of my writer friends and colleagues work at the eleventh hour. To me, the terror level would be unbearable.
>> What sort of stories and characters interest yon?
CF: Complicated ones, ones that surprise. Funny characters who all of a sudden get serious; tragic stories that in an instant make you laugh. One of my favorite movies in the last couple years was Flirting with Disaster; and I felt that way because of how many times that movie surprised me. Surprise is such a liberating, rejuvenating feeling.
>> How do you work through roadblocks?
CF: I usually try to tough it out...I lay on the couch, I take a swim, I take a walk, I take a shower. It's probably that Ohio upbringing, but I tend to think of it as a defeat if I have to talk it out, even with my husband, who isn't in the business, and has the good sense to nod and say nothing.
Oh, my other roadblock technique is research. Get some more research. That's also how I spend my time when I can tell that I'm not really there with story yet. Love that research. Not that much of it fits in. But it's a great thing to do while you're waiting to be ready to write.
>> What was the background of developing a live broadcast for ER?
CF: The PR line was true; originally it was the actors and crew who pushed for doing an episode live. They wanted the challenge. For several months, the writer/producers laughed at the idea...and then, probably because of my theatre background, at some point I went over to the dark side. I'd talked to Tommy Schlamme (who directed the episode) at a fund raiser last fall; and he was convinced it was do-able.
For a couple of months, I knew I was going to propose to John Wells and the other writers, that I would write and produce it. I had even worked out some of the logistics -- writing the script in advance of coming back for the fourth season; doing it as the first show, after we'd already filmed five of six episodes. But I didn't say anything; because it was such a terrifying and concrete idea. I knew somehow that if I said I'd do it; that it would happen. So I lived with the prospect, to see if it would go away, before I uttered the fatal words -- I want to do it.
Obviously, I've missed writing for the theatre, which is what I did in my twenties and early thirties. (I didn't own a TV until 1988 when I bought one to watch the pilot of China Beach, which I'd worked on as a researcher.) And writing and rehearsing "Ambush," the live ER, recalled some of my playwriting past. But I think the other factor that got me on board with the actors for this, is that the relationship between actors and writers on an episodic show -- and especially a long-running one, is uniquely creative. I'm not close friends with any of our actors on ER, but I'm intimate with them as artists in a way that perhaps would surprise some of them.
When you're writing episodic, your stories develop and derive as much from what you witness as you watch the actors in dailies, as from your own interests and impulses. You write with the voices of these characters, portrayed by these actors, in your head. I don't think I could be happy writing on an episodic show where the actors didn't excite me and inspire me. From a professional and artistic point of view (and with all the dysfunctional possibilities included) writers and actors in episodic do become a family.
So when some of the actors wanted to do a live show, it was a hard suggestion for me to blow off. I equate it to an experience last spring when my husband wanted to take an ultralight air craft (those planes with lawnmower motors) up over Victoria Falls. Nothing could have been further from my mind. But it was my husband suggesting it. And if he did it, was I going to stay on the ground and watch? I did it, I loved it, I almost passed out from the thrill. It was just like ER live.
>> Where did the idea of using a video crew come from?
CF: The notion of the documentary crew was something we discussed in writers meetings. It seemed ideal for addressing the biggest concern we all had. Going live meant shooting on video instead of film. How could we explain to our loyal audience why ER looked and sounded so different this week? The video hurdle was a big one, and from what I've heard from friends who had trouble viewing the episode, it remained a stumbling block for some fans. But at least it offered a rationale for why this was a unique ER, and it didn't prevent us from returning to the normal ER look the following week.
The secondary factors in using a documentary crew as part of the story were also crucial: We had a safety net if a boom appeared in the shot; and we had a story reason for going live. None of us wanted to use a gimmick for its own sake. But with the concept of a film crew in the ER, we felt that we could reveal sides of our characters that we'd never seen before. In the documentary intrusion and the forced interview format, we may be able to give voice to characters' concerns and secrets in a unique way -- especially with Mark Greene, who had been victim of an attack at the end of last season.
>> Did you write any things differently for ER Live?
CF: Yes, in a fundamental way, every moment was different. Because of only seeing the action through the film crew's POV, I had to address each character's awareness of the camera and the fact that they were being observed, at each moment. I could only allow the characters to say or do what they would be willing to do in front of a camera. I felt I had to earn every moment where they lost consciousness of being taped. It was the opposite job for me and for the actors who by second nature, have to forget the camera, even as they remember the camera. Now they had to remember the camera and occasionally forget the camera, while of course, always remembering the camera. All the simplest things were very convoluted.
And in terms of writing a live episode with some hope of producibilty, I had to keep in my left and right brains all sorts of rules while I was writing. Only a true compulsive could have taken the pleasure I took, when our live associate director drew up his first geographic board of the episode (it looked like Candyland) and complimented me on how I'd succeeded spatially, in spreading out the scenes so that actors and cameramen could clear and set up while the action continued. Not exactly an artistic achievement, but, hey.
I was similarly pleased (we television writers are so crazed about time) with the length of the show. During the eight days of blocking and rehearsals, we did some line trims; added same last minute exposition; and re-worked the content of two scenes. But the final performances, which ran three seconds short in the east coast, and about twelve seconds long in west coast version, were essentially the same as the draft we'd read at the first read-through.
While I tried to be organized and conservative in terms of space and time, I tried to be as typically, ER, balls-to-the-wall, as possible in terms of the story elements. I wanted to have traumas and fights and tears and at least one baby and one child and one old man who had to be defibrillated, speak witty dialogue, and then die and stay dead. These risks I handed over to Tommy and the actors and God; and with talent, hard work, good luck and grace all these elements came through amazingly well, from my point of view.
>> From a writing standpoint, what worked best and worst doing the show live? Once the show began, did you feel "on call" or was it out of your hands?
CF: I'm not sure how I'd achieve it, but I'd probably try to find a way to make the documentary crew "disappear" earlier and more frequently, especially in scenes with our regulars. Given a few more days of rehearsal, I believe we could have worked out some problems with sound that didn't make it easy to hear the subtleties of some of the quieter and more emotional performances. But would I steer away from writing those moments? Not for now. Maybe I would protect them better, by isolating them and keeping the number of characters to a minimum.
Once the show began -- meaning once the countdown to air started -- it was completely out of my hands and I was totally 'on call'. It would have been physically impossible for me to be separated from "the truck" and Tommy Schlamme's side (actually over his shoulder) during the performance. What the heck was I doing there? Nothing but trying to remember to breathe.
During the month of prep and the eight days of rehearsal, I had plenty of work to do -- as a writer and producer. But as each day went by, it was more and more out of my hands. We hired a producer and tech director and others with lots of live experience (they'd done the Olympics, and lived with this kind of anxiety for 28 days of shooting.) Tommy Schlamme was organized and clear-headed about how much to bite off each day, as we counted down to air date. I think we all looked to each other to maintain an appearance of cheerful stamina and creative problem-solving -- even though I'm sure there were dark moments for all. Even if we'd gone down in flames on September 25th, I'd be really proud of how this group of people treated each other and did their work.
The hardest part for me was the prep before we started rehearsing. Too much anxiety and uncertainty. Luckily as we met with each department: props, costumes, casting, medical etc; I began to feel how each group was shifting into gear; eager to take on the challenge. And once the actors read the script aloud, I felt an appreciable amount of the tension transfer. I still didn't know if it would work live; but I had faith that if it could be pulled off, they were the ones to do it.
I'd love to try it again. But probably not on a show that is up and running. An awful lot of our work consisted of stopping how everything was usually done and tooling up in this new mode. Also, I think having to find an excuse and rationale for why our world looked different, was a one-time deal. I wouldn't want to try to find another excuse for ER (or any other established show) to look like video. But a show that was conceived and designed to be live...Why not?
>> What's your best and most memorable experience as a writer?
CF: Certainly ER Live. Goes down in my book along with the first playwriting contest I won in college. It was a national award and I was notified by mail that I'd won. There was a thousand dollar first prize. I still remember running to tell our neighbors in the family housing complex and us all celebrating that night. Somebody miles away, had been touched by what I wrote. Wow. It doesn't get any better than that.
>> Was there any particular writer who acted as a mentor to you?
CF: I've always been most inspired by the really remote models, i.e.: Shakespeare, Chekov, Pinter; and my closest in-the-trenches, co-conspirators. I've learned enormously from every writer I've worked with in television, including Bill Broyles, who taught me that you don't leave behind what you've picked up elsewhere; John Young, who insists on aiming for passion; John Wells, who finds delight in moments where you thought nothing was happening; Lydia Woodward, who mixes innocence with a wry squint; Pat Green, who always wants the story; Susan Rhinehart, who isn't afraid to holler out loud; Paul Manning, who won't stop shaking that story until something new happens; Alan Brennert who fights being pigeonholed; Mark Levin, who looks for the bold choice that isn't the obvious one; Walon Green, who lets it happen with equanimity; and many other writers I'll remember after I've sent this, including all my current co-writers on ER. Every writer with an open door on every staff I've worked on, has mentored me in some way; and I haven't been shy about taking what they offered.
Good luck to all writers and readers on this web site.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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